Ethan Welker is a 15-year-old freshman at the University School, a private college prep school in Shadyside. His mom Michele Welker says he’s a smart and curious boy.
“Around the age of 7, he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum with Asperger’s,” Michele said. “(Asperger’s is) one of the higher functioning levels of the spectrum.”
Communication can often be a challenge for kids on the autism spectrum. Human facial expressions and vocal intonations are complex, and some children have difficulty deciphering their meanings.
But a new robot developed in Pittsburgh could prove to be a game changer for children on the autism spectrum. His name is Romibo, and he’s a social therapy robot designed to aid therapists and teachers working with children with special needs.
“Where (Ethan) has difficulty interpreting people’s reactions to things, their facial expressions, that sort of non-verbal language … Romibo, the robot doesn’t have any of that,” Michele said.
Ethan said he usually feels like he has to choose his words carefully when he interacts with people, but he didn’t feel that way with Romibo during an art therapy class he took through Fine Art Miracles.
Tess Lojacono runs the program and works with different types of clients, from nursing home residents to people suffering from Spina Bifida. But Romibo was designed specifically with kids like Ethan in mind.
“Sometimes (Romibo’s) eyes can show a little bit of expression, but that’s it, it’s very minimal,” Lojacono said. “So it’s something that doesn’t get in the way of the kids understanding what the robot’s saying. “
Romibo is about the size of a small dog, and he can come with either a colorful furry covering or a hard plastic shell, depending on the child’s preferences. He doesn’t have a mouth, just eyes displayed on an iPod touch, which is wirelessly connected to an iPad that Lojacono uses to control the robot. She can make it move forward and back, turn left or right, and say whatever she wants.
“For example, when the children are drawing, we’ll have Romibo ask ‘What’s happening in the picture?,’” explains Aubrey Shick, the inventor of Romibo. “(It) begins to get the kids to think creatively and respond, and they’re less inhibited to respond to Romibo because Romibo never gets upset.”
Shick came up with the idea for Romibo in 2011 when she was in graduate school at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. She said, by that time, the benefits of using robots as social therapy tools for children on the autism spectrum were well documented.
“I decided to develop a really low-cost social robot, because most of the robots in use at that time were $16,000-30,000, and I wanted to take the technology to the general public,” Shick said.
Shick co-founded Origami Robotics, in part to claim a prize from the National Science Foundation. She lives in Berkeley, Cali. now, and is working on raising enough money to manufacture 5,000 Romibo robots.
“We’ve gotten a lot of estimates on the market size in Europe and the United States, and now with one in 68 children with autism, even though we’re focusing on service providers now, there’s still a market for well over 5,000 robots,” Shick said.
But in the meantime, people like Lojacono are working with what Shick called an Alpha version. Lojacono said Romibo perfectly complements her art therapy technique, encouraging children to disinhibit and express themselves.
“It gives these kids a sense of calm, a sense of success in accomplishment, because they’re able to focus more, they’re able to stay on task,” Lojacono said. “In addition to that, honestly between you and me, it’s a robot and that is so cool, the kids love it, all kids love it”
Ethan Welker is no exception. During his art class, he knew Lojacono was controlling Romibo’s words actions, but he says he found himself “treating it as its own intelligence.”
Ethan has had some difficulty with art class at school, but he said when he made art with Romibo, it felt much less stressful.
“I didn’t feel … as constrained in what I was able to draw,” Ethan said. “I was exactly as constrained, but it didn’t feel like it.”
Michele Welker says she was surprised to watch Ethan draw a self-portrait and several other pieces. He even got a chance to control Romibo using the iPad app.
“I made it say stuff like ‘Hi, I’m Bob,’” Ethan said, laughing. “I made it say ‘I’m a robot, I’m not a robot, I hate robots, I love robots.’”
Lojacono said she and her team at Fine Art Miracles are experiencing tremendous success with Romibo.
“All of the things that they saw in the laboratory, the ability to focus, to stay on task, increase verbalization and socialization, all those things are showing true in the classroom,” Lojacono said.
Shick said there are currently 14 Romibos in five countries, and that the teachers, clinicians, and therapists using Romibo are helping her develop specific curricula for others to use.
“Within one year, we will be able to sell to active caregivers, ones who want to control the robot for the purposes of teaching and modeling, and most importantly to get the kids to interact more with people, not with robots,” Shick said.
Lojacono said she has plans to buy several more Romibos for her art therapy practice.
“I love these things. I just think they’re fantastic,” Lojacono said. “I have one with me all the time, much to the chagrin of my family sometimes.”